Advocates push back against black lawmakers on ethics office

Watchdog groups are trying to insulate a new House ethics panel from an attempt to peel away its powers.

Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center are calling on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to stand up and defend the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which was created under her leadership to help police members’ activities after a rash of corruption and ethics scandals during GOP control of the chamber.

Other groups, such as Common Cause, U.S. PIRG and Public Citizen, have sent letters supporting the OCE in the past, and this week will likely join in urging Pelosi to strongly support the new, more independent layer of ethics scrutiny.

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“We are urging the Speaker to stand strong with the office that was correctly created under her leadership,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. “This is nothing more than an effort to hamstring and undermine an office that is essential to the ethics enforcement process in the House.”

Pelosi’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and 19 other black Democratic lawmakers introduced a resolution the week before the Memorial Day recess that would strip some and redefine other powers of the OCE, a panel of mainly former members that conducts initial investigations into complaints against members and makes recommendations for further inquiry to the House ethics committee.

The Fudge resolution reflects growing frustration within the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) over the additional ethics scrutiny, but some question the timing of its introduction, just as Democrats are heading into the critical summer months of a tough campaign season.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who chairs the CBC, signed on as a co-sponsor, but Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) did not, even though he has voiced concerns about the ethics office and helped to convene a meeting last year between its staff and CBC members. Anything perceived as an attempt to weaken House ethics standards opens Democrats up to GOP political attacks.

“If Democrats don’t like the heat put on them by the OCE, they have only their own fellow Democrats to blame, from Nancy Pelosi, who created it, to [Reps.] Charlie Rangel [N.Y.], Maxine Waters [Calif.] and Laura Richardson [Calif.], who remain under ethics investigation,” said one senior GOP aide.

The OCE has investigated at least eight members of the CBC since it was created in 2008, including Rangel and five others, over corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean that appeared to violate new travel rules imposed by Democrats when they regained the majority.

Three other CBC members have been the target of probes. Waters, a co-sponsor on Fudge’s bill, faces scrutiny for allegations that she improperly intervened with the Treasury Department last year on behalf of OneUnited, a bank in which her husband owned stock. Richardson has faced questions about improper gifts surrounding the mortgage on a Sacramento home. The OCE investigated Waters and Richardson and recommended further inquiry by the full ethics committee, which has yet to complete its investigations.

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The OCE also looked into allegations that Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) launched a “public campaign” to be appointed to President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat in Illinois, and recommended further action by the ethics panel. The Justice Department then asked the panel to defer the matter because of the criminal indictment against ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the investigation surrounding it.

Three other sponsors of the resolution, Democratic Reps. Carolyn Kilpatrick (Mich.), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas) and Bennie Thompson (Miss.), were targets of the OCE inquiry into the Caribbean trips. The ethics committee cleared all three of any wrongdoing but admonished Rangel for relying on staffers who knew the trips were improperly funded by corporations.

Several members of the CBC, as well as some GOP targets of OCE inquiries, have griped about the new investigative process over the last year, attacking it as unfair and overly transparent. The names of members under investigation, they said, shouldn’t be public unless the ethics panel ultimately determines that they are guilty of misconduct or a violation of House rules.

“For instance, OCE is currently the accuser, judge and jury,” Fudge said in a statement. “This isn’t the case in the American justice system, and it shouldn’t be so in Congress. This proposal brings Congress in line with America’s judicial system by creating a process truly free of politics, avoiding trials in the court of public opinion and stopping the premature release of reports.”

OCE supporters argue that some of the complaints are misguided or the result of misunderstandings about how the names are ending up in the press.

“These efforts are dangerous and misguided,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center. “It doesn’t reflect what the OCE can actually do — it can’t judge a case and can’t punish members. All it can do is conduct a primary investigation.”

Another provision in Fudge’s resolution would prevent the OCE from launching an investigation unless the allegation comes from a source with “direct knowledge” of the conduct, severely limiting the origin of inquiries. Currently, the OCE can open an investigation at its own discretion, whether allegations of improper conduct are raised in newspaper articles or through anonymous complaints or complaints from members of the public.

When crafting the OCE, members provided broader powers to launch investigations because of inaction by the full ethics committee, which tended to investigate member activity only when another lawmaker filed a formal complaint or when the scandal became so public the ethics panel could not avoid launching an inquiry.

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